Alexa, What Does It Take to Be Human?

Could a tiny smart computer fill in all my gaps in parenting? The better question is, should it?

Mattel pulled a much-anticipated and hotly-debated toy recently.
Aristotle, a device geared for children anywhere from infancy to adolescence, was set up to be the kid’s version of Alexa. It boasted features such as the ability to soothe a crying baby, teach ABCs, reinforce good manners, play interactive games, and help kids with homework. Marketed as an “all-in-one nursery necessity” on Mattel’s website, it also offered e-commerce functionality that would enable Aristotle to automatically reorder baby products based on user feedback.
This little gadget would be the next big thing, engineered to “comfort, entertain, teach, and assist during each development state – evolving with a child as their needs change.”
You see where this is heading.
How much do we let artificial intelligence narrate our children’s lives? How can we put something like this in charge of soothing our kids to sleep, teaching the alphabet, and eventually helping with homework?
Could a tiny smart computer fill in all my gaps in parenting? The better question is, should it? I know what being saddled with my phone and Wi-Fi all hours of the waking day does to my psyche. What could it possibly do to a toddler or an 11-year-old?
The director of the M.I.T. Initiative on Technology and Self, Sherry Turke, said something in her approval of Mattel’s decision to nix Aristotle that made me pause: “The ground rules of human beinghood are laid down very early” and these machines have “changed the ground rules of how people think about personhood.”
Is this true? By creating Siri and Alexa and all manner of innumerable smart devices, have we changed what it means to be human?
Do you remember the little origami fortune tellers you could make out of a paper? You’d ask it a question – say, “who will I marry?” or “will I have a pool when I grow up?” – and then you’d pick a number, count it out, and open the flap to reveal your future.
I never got the pool. But I also never forgot that it was just a game. I didn’t really think I would marry David or Nick. But maybe if I carried it around all the time and asked it every question from age eight and onward, I would forget it was not, in fact, in charge of my fate.
Turke went on to say that “we can’t put children in this position of pretend empathy and then expect that children will know what empathy is. Or give them pretend as-if relationships, and then think that we’ll have children who know what relationships are.”
Have the things that used to define us as highly evolved creatures – our rationality and morality and curiosity – changed so much? Do we still care to defend right and wrong and ask why of the universe or are we content to ask Siri? Do we, the grown-ups, still know what empathy is? When I watch the news, I wonder.
Do we know what it means to develop and nurture and uphold sustainable relationships? I hope so.
Aristotle was a free-thinking scientist and philosopher. He was a man who believed in things acting according to their function. I do not believe he would have entrusted the development of our children’s minds to a computer. I’m not even sure where he’d put artificial intelligence in the hierarchical system. Is it animal, vegetable, mineral, or none of the above?
The ground rules of “beinghood” are constantly evolving, but the core of what makes us human stands. We still care enough to write great literature, fight injustice, love and lose and love again, and cancel a toy before it begins to raise our children. We still hold a tiny bit of prescience over the rightness and wrongness of where our curiosity is leading us.
As long as we are able to look up from our toys and ask of each other and the world, “What does it all mean?”, our humanity remains intact. Technology is a marvel and a necessary in the modern world, but it cannot define us. This is a new game we are playing, and we must play it wisely.

New Healthy Media Habits for Young Kids

Media and tech are and will continue to be huge in their lives. Start now to create a balanced approach that keeps everyone healthy.

Who among us hasn’t fibbed when the doctor asks how much alcohol you drink? Who takes the suggested daily amount of Vitamin C? Who engages in moderate exercise precisely 150 minutes per week? Thought so. Turns out families treat their media diets the same way. Despite pediatricians’ ongoing recommendations to curb kids’ screen use, the Common Sense Census: Media Use by Kids Age Zero to Eight 2017 found that families with young kids are buying up mobile devices, using screens before bed, and streaming tons of video. But plenty of parents think their own kids’ media use is perfectly fine, and most believe that on the whole, it’s good for kids. So what does it mean when the reality doesn’t match the recommendations? It’s time for new rules.
Not no rules, just different ones — you may be OK for now, but studies show that media use steadily increases as kids get older, and there are risks to overexposure. Changing your approach to screen management before the tween and teen years will increase the chances that the stuff they’re interacting with is (mostly) good for them. It also allows you to think more deeply about how, when, and why you want your family to be using technology, so it enhances and enriches your lives.
Interestingly, the census found that even with all the new things kids are doing, their total daily amount of screen time hasn’t changed that much in six years. That’s good news because as long as you have basic limits, you can focus on choosing quality media and tech to make screen time really count. And with many parents reporting that media use benefits their kids’ learning and creativity, the new rules call for co-viewing and co-playing to boost those positive benefits (rather than screaming at your kids to turn off the computer).
Some parents ask: Why restrict media at all? Because honestly, nothing takes the place of the things that are proven to be best for little kids’ bodies and minds, like talking, playing, growing bored, and learning how to do stuff — especially in the crucial early years of a kid’s life. At the end of the day, it’s not your doctor you have to answer to — it’s your kids. Media and tech are and will continue to be huge in their lives. Start now to create a balanced approach that keeps everyone healthy.
5 Tips for Parents of Young Kids
Choose the good stuff (and not too much!). When your kids ask to see, play, or download something, don’t just take their word for it — check up on it. A lot of the age recommendations on media products are the creators’ best guess and aren’t necessarily a match for your child’s age and developmental stage. Read product reviews from independent sources (like Common Sense Media). Say no if you’re not comfortable with it. And when you approve something, help your kids enjoy it along with their other activities.
Don’t use screens right before bed, and keep them out of the bedroom overnight. Kids really need their sleep. Screens in the bedroom — especially in the hour before bedtime — interfere with the entire process of winding down, preparing for rest, and waking up refreshed and ready to tackle the day. If you’re unable to make the bedroom a screen-free zone (which is optimal but not always possible), keep TVs off for at least an hour before bedtime and set tablets or phones to night mode, turn off any notifications, and/or consider using Guided Access or another device setting to keep phones/tablets locked on a music or an alarm clock app.
Turn off the TV if no one is watching it. A lot of parents of young kids keep the TV on for company. But so-called background TV has been shown to get in the way of parents talking and interacting with their kids — which are key to helping kids learn language and communication. Background TV can also expose kids to age-inappropriate content. Seek out other forms of entertainment that you can listen to with your kid, such as music, kids’ podcasts, and audiobooks.
Make time for enjoying media with your kids, especially reading. Reading to your kid is one of the best things you can do — period. It’s great for bonding, but it also sets the stage for learning. While it’s nice to have a little library of books at home, you can read whatever’s available and it’ll be good for them. Product labels, signs, packaging copy — anything with words is fine. If you’re raising your kid in a place where you don’t completely know the language, feel free to read books or articles to them in your native tongue. Or just make up stories — it’s the rhythm, sounds, and communication that are important for kids to hear.
Practice what you preach. Remember, your kids are watching you. When your kids are little, create a family media plan to help you balance media and tech (theirs and yours) with all of the other things that are important to you. This isn’t just for them; it’s for you, too. Schedule in downtime, chores, homework, outdoor fun, reading, meals, etc. And then figure out how much extra is available for TV shows, games, apps and other media activities. Don’t worry about counting up daily screen time minutes — just aim for a balance throughout the week. Try to carve out times and locations that are “screen-free zones.” Hold yourself to them. Kids learn more from what we do than what we say, so make sure you’re role-modeling the right habits.

Turns Out, Screen Time Does Influence IRL Learning

A recent study suggests media activities can provide kids with valuable learning, teaching problem-solving strategies that have real-world implications.

Ask my son what happens when you watch too much TV and he’ll be straight with you: “Your brain turns into mush.”
You can thank me for that one.
Back when he was still in my belly, I read the parenting book, “Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina”, and drilled the following phrase into my brain: “Face-time, not screen-time” (and I don’t mean FaceTime).
Medina explains that babies and toddlers need face-to-face interaction in order to form healthy social, emotional, and cognitive skills. This made total sense to me, so I resolved to wait as long as possible before exposing my son to TV or letting him get his hands on a tablet.
After waiting the recommended two years – okay, fine, it was 18 months – I began allowing him to view a little bit of TV at a time, just so I could get something – anything – done. As he grew older, that amount increased and the type of screen-time expanded, but so did my guilt and concern over it.
“Face-time, not screen-time,” a little voice whispers in my ear each time my son reaches for the remote or gleefully plays the Nick Jr. app on my husband’s iPad (reserved for extra stressful situations). But, another voice tells me to let it go, because I really have to nurse his baby brother or cook dinner or get us through airport security (read: extra stressful situation). And besides, he’s four now, so more than a little screen time won’t hurt…right?
Some recent research has found that, around age five, certain media activities may even help children learn. But can the skills they learn from a screen be useful in real life? In 2016, Joanne Tarasuik, a researcher at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, set out to answer that question with a study that looked at how Australian children between the ages of four and six solved the same puzzle using a touchscreen tablet version and a tangible, wooden version.
She and her team found that children could indeed transfer skills they learned from working on the virtual puzzle to solving the physical one, demonstrating that screen-based skills were translatable to the real world – although in the age of smartphones and Facebook it can be hard to know what’s real anymore.
Because that finding contradicted most of the research that had come before it, the team decided to replicate their study using a different group of children from a different culture for reliability purposes. In the repeat study, recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Tarasuik and her colleagues teamed up with researchers in Croatia and studied a group of Croatian children using a puzzle called the Tower of Hanoi, made up of wooden pegs and discs.
The children tackled the puzzle using the tablet version and/or the wooden version. Researchers measured the amount of time and number of moves it took for the kids to complete the puzzle. They observed whether practicing on the device enhanced the children’s performance on the wooden version.
According to Science Daily, “The children all needed a similar number of moves to complete the wooden puzzle, regardless of whether they had practiced using the virtual puzzle, the physical puzzle, or a combination of the two. From the first to final attempt at the puzzle, all the children also improved their speed,” thereby replicating their original finding that four- to six-year-old children can take knowledge gained from a screen-based activity and apply it in a new, physical, practial context.
Clearly, not all screen-time is created equal. Researchers hypothesize that passive screen-time, like watching a video demonstration, will lead to different learning outcomes for children than engaging in an interactive app. The results of this study suggest that certain media activities can provide children with valuable learning experiences, teaching them problem-solving strategies that have real-world implications. It also shows how further research on the learning value and real-world applicability of touch-screen technology for children of different ages could be beneficial.
While it’s clear that we need more information on this important topic and I’m not about to let my son ‘go to town’ with the TV or the tablet, I guess I should admit that not every screen will turn his brain to mush.
But those YouTube videos of people opening toys and Easter eggs will.

The Case for Boredom to Ignite Our Minds

We may assume that curing boredom is a good thing for all of us. But researchers fear that not being bored is the problem.

The demands of careers and parenting mean we’ve lost time to let our minds wander. There are always tasks that need to be handled.
Then there’s the other obvious way we cure boredom should it have a chance to strike: technology. Smartphones give us the opportunity to constantly engage with social media, games, news, or countless text threads. All of these serve as distractions that keep our minds from dealing with boredom for even a minute.
We may assume that curing boredom is a good thing for all of us. We’re not bored, the kids aren’t bored, we don’t have to listen to the kids complain about being bored, and everyone can grab their smartphones or tablets should boredom arise.
But researchers fear that not being bored is the problem.

Why we need boredom

Research shows that people will go to extremes to avoid sitting alone with their thoughts. Studies found that boredom can cause excessive drinking, gambling, and eating when we’re not hungry.
Fortunately, most of us don’t have to engage in these harmful activities to stave off boredom. Unfortunately, we turn to smartphones as a safe option when they are not.
According to studies used in author Manoush Zomorodi’s TED Talk, we now shift our attention every 45 seconds while working because technology makes it easy to do so. We also spend time checking our phones when we don’t even know what we’re looking for. Notifications constantly pop up, and we become Pavlovian in our responses to them, searching for them when they’re not even there just because we can see the phone.
A recent study showed that even having our smartphones in the room with us lowers our cognitive function.
Smartphones and the way we use them keep us from allowing ourselves to get bored, and that means we’re missing out. When bored, the brain goes into default mode. It’s in this mindset that we can reflect on our past and problem solve for our future.
When bored, we daydream, we create ideas, and we stick with a train of thought that can lead us to create. A study even found that participants asked to perform a boring task before solving a problem using creativity did a better job than those whose brains weren’t first prepared by boredom.

How to be bored in the technology age

Journalist Manoush Zomorodi launched a podcast in 2015 that challenged listeners to engage with technology responsibly and put some boredom back in their lives. It wasn’t a cold-turkey technology detox. Most of us have to use some form of technology for jobs or communication with others. Zomorodi launched her challenge to help people learn to do it responsibly.  She wanted participants to give themselves time during the day to free their minds from simply staring at a screen for no reason.
Her challenge led to a book that came out this year titled “Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self”.  It details how to engage responsibly with our phones while giving our brains the sacred time they need to be utterly bored.
Challenges include deleting our favorite apps from our phones or walking without a phone in our hands for an entire day. None of these challenges seem that hard until participants are forced to perform them.
That’s when many who signed up for the challenge on Manoush’s podcast realized they were addicted, though some had inklings of that before. It’s why they signed up in the first place. Most of us know we are missing time we used to have, time where our minds roamed and we used wonder and curiosity to cure our boredom. Our brains had room and time to develop ideas.
Children born into the smartphone age need to be trained to use technology responsibly because they will not remember having all that tech-free time. That longing we have to unplug will be foreign to kids who live electronically plugged in at all times.
Parents can set the example by using self-control and making technology work for their lives, but not take them over. In the process, they teach their kids the sacred practice of boredom.
These simple guidelines are a good start:

Keep the phone out of the bedroom

Let those boring moments before sleep get the creative juices flowing and preserve rest. Phones in the bedroom can cause sleep problems.

Go hands-free

When walking or driving, don’t hold a phone like it’s an extension of the body. Instead of focusing brain power on looking at the phone or wondering when it’s going to offer a notification, go hands-free and let the brain go into default mode.

Set times for engagement

Those in the technology development industry have no problem admitting they are creating a product, and they want it to be as addictive as possible. Manoush believes that it’s so hard to be bored because our technology is designed to draw us in.
To combat this, set up rules and times for engagement. Don’t let tech designers decide how and when you use technology.

The long-term payoff

Creativity was identified as a leadership competency that CEOs look for in employees. Creative people may be hard to find if we now live in a society that doesn’t value boredom. We are also living in a society full of people who feel guilty about the unhealthy relationships they have with their phones.
We can change the course, though, and raise a generation that benefits from technology while still using their minds to create and problem solve without distractions. We can have the conveniences that smartphones offer without the addiction or the brain drain they cause.
It’s as simple, and as difficult, as embracing boredom.

The Dramatic Shift in Kids' Screen Time Since 2011

Based on a sample of more than 1,400 parents from all over the US, Common Sense Media’s survey paints a complex portrait of increasingly mobile families.

My kitchen counter has changed a lot over the last six years. What used to be dedicated to a bowl of fruit, a coffee maker, various papers, and mail that I haven’t gotten around to throwing away yet has become a mess of wires coiling back to one put-upon outlet. A rotating set of smartphones, tablets, Bluetooth speakers, and headphones have made their way to the counter as well, pointing to a broader set of changes in the house. Our family, which includes a 5-year-old and 3-year-old, has a lot of mobile device stuff. And we aren’t the only ones. Today marks the release of the third wave of the The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Kids Age Zero to Eight, an ongoing series tracking the use of media and technology among U.S. kids. Beginning in 2011 and repeating again in 2013, these surveys offer us a once-in-a-lifetime look to see how new technologies have been enmeshing themselves in our children’s lives. Based on a nationally representative sample of more than 1,400 parents from all over the country, the survey paints a complex portrait of increasingly mobile families. Some of the key findings include:

  • Mobile is nearly universal. Nearly all children age 8 and under live in a home with some type of mobile device, the same percentage that have a TV in the home. In 2011, only 41 percent of families had a mobile device; now 95 percent do. In 2011, less than 10 percent of families had a tablet; now nearly 80 percent do.
  • The amount of screen media hasn’t changed much, but how kids use media has changed a lot. Children 8 and under spend an average of about two-and-a-quarter hours a day with screen media, almost exactly the same amount they devoted to screens in 2011. But much more of that time is spent on mobile devices; the average amount of time spent with mobile devices each day has tripled (again), going from 5 minutes a day in 2011 to 15 minutes a day in 2013 to 48 minutes a day in 2017.
  • The digital divide persists, but is smaller than it used to be. The gap in high-speed internet access between higher-income and lower-income families has been cut from 50 down to 22 percentage points (96 percent of higher-income families have high-speed internet versus 74 percent of lower-income families). The gap in overall mobile device ownership has virtually disappeared (3 percentage points), due to the number of lower-income families that now have a smartphone.
  • Parents and pediatricians are sometimes at odds on media behaviors. Contrary to recommendations from pediatricians, many children use media shortly before bedtime, and many families leave the TV on in the background most of the time.

The world has changed a lot since 2011, and my kitchen counter reflects that. Every bit of research about children’s media habits helps us better understand the world they are growing up in. Mobile devices are popular with kids, just as they are with adults, making it all the more important to set a good example. That could mean putting your device away at dinner or turning off screens a little earlier before bed. There are tons of great TVapps, and other media for kids under the age of 8, so when they’re using media, try to steer them toward the good stuff. And finally, though we’re only beginning to understand the impact of new technologies in family life, there’s plenty we know about how to support young kids’ healthy development. Talk with them, ask questions, give them lots of experiences in the real world. And have them tell you about what they’re watching and playing — it’s a great way to make media experiences more meaningful.
Written by Michael Robb for Common Sense Media.

I Survived Four Days Without the Internet and so Can You

No WIFI for four days? No checking in on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter? No posting! And I lived to tell about it.

“Hey! Check out this cottage we’re going to in August! Do you guys think you can come meet us for a few days?”
That was the Facebook message we received from our friends. One family was coming from BC and the other, while living not too far away, we don’t get to see much. So we decided the idea was perfect. We told them we were in.
They had found a wonderful cottage, quietly tucked away on the lake. It was fully equipped with a badminton net, boats, a fishing dock, and a small beach big enough for our little people to play. The place seemed idyllic.
As we got closer to the cottage, we noticed that we no longer had cell phone or internet service. No big deal, right? I was sure WIFI would be waiting for me with open arms once we arrived. I lived a life before cell phones were a thing, so I wasn’t too worried about not having service.
I was soon, however, faced with the reality of the situation. Instead of open arms from said advanced technology, I got a middle finger and a “deal with it.” The cottage had a nearly-extinct landline and contained shelves packed with VHS tapes. Once upon a time – before smart phones – I would have considered this a jackpot. But this felt prehistoric.
I’ll admit I panicked. No WIFI for four days? No checking in on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter? No posting!
“Hey, guys! Look at me being all chilled out and relaxed,” I said, as I tried to keep my twitches from view.
They could clearly see my anxiety rising as I tapped my phone on the table. My friends didn’t seem troubled at all though. Even my husband, who constantly reads the news on his phone, wasn’t as anxious as I was.
“Oh no, Karen, what are you going to do!?” my husband joked. “How about you accept it for what it is and try to relax.”
Clearly, my state of panic points in one direction: I am addicted to the internet and, by relation, my cell phone, which allows me mobile access no matter where I go. I never thought I’d feel so down on my luck about something so trivial. But here I was, in a beautiful cottage surrounded by nature, and I was complaining that I had no WIFI.
I’ve never had to face this kind of situation head on, but now that I faced it, I realized my addiction. I’m so used to having my phone strapped to me like a bra, so it was understandable that I felt a bit naked without it.
The first morning I woke up and grabbed myself a cup of coffee and my phone off the mantel. As I held it up to unlock it, I frowned.
I could only look at the people sitting around the table and laugh nervously. “I was checking my phone.” With that, I placed my phone down and joined in the conversation with great friends I don’t get to see very often.
Imagine that: face-to-face conversations with people in your vicinity. The horror!
Slowly, I started realizing that being without the option to disappear into my phone felt relaxing. I was free from the beeps and buzzes that would pull me back into the real world of obligations. It was as though the cage had been lifted, and I was able to enjoy my freedom.
My head was up and my back straight. I looked up, not down. I engaged in conversations that I could hear instead of read. I didn’t feel the need to run and check my phone just in case someone commented on a post I put up or sent me a message. What a welcome change.
I went four days and three nights with no access to the World Wide Web and survived it. The only reason I had to pick up my phone was to take a picture.
Technology can be frightening. This was a huge wake-up call for me. I need to put my phone down. I need to stop recording every aspect of my life and start living my life. Sure, the memories are great to look back on, but what about being there, in the moment? Is it not enough to just be in the company of your people?
Since then, I’ve gotten better at disconnecting. I want to take in what’s around me and, yes, take a picture of it. I’m working on finding a good balance that allows me to look up for a change.
I’ll be honest, though: I was pretty happy to see those bars come back to life on my phone as we drove home.

Gender-Fluid Apps and Games Because it's 2017

More and more young people are embracing this idea and identifying as fluid, and there are a handful of apps and games to reflect their experiences.

The days of puppy dog tails and sugar and spice may be fading, but being born a girl or boy still carries certain expectations. And while what’s expected from both genders has become more flexible over the years, we can still see the “rules” revealed in what’s deemed newsworthy, like Alicia Keys not wearing makeup or Jaden Smith wearing a skirt.
Beyond appearance, however, people can have the sense that the deeper assumptions about gender just don’t fit them. This doesn’t always mean not identifying with your sex and wanting to change it, as is true for trans people like Caitlyn Jenner, who feel that their biological sex isn’t true to who they are. Instead, it’s more about wanting gender to be more fluid and less rigid, so that there’s some middle ground between maleness and femaleness.
Actors like Miley Cyrus and Ruby Rose identify as gender-fluid and define it as being “somewhere in the middle,” though it isn’t all about appearance and doesn’t necessarily define sexuality. More and more young people are embracing this idea and identifying as fluid, and there are a handful of apps and games to reflect their experiences. Check out the titles below to find characters who are either gender-fluid or who generally challenge gender norms.
Chrono Trigger, 11+ Considering this role-playing game was originally released in the ’90s, its inclusive spirit is pretty progressive. It’s a classic RPG (role-playing game) with battles and spells, but what sets it apart is Flea, one of the playable characters. Flea is described with male pronouns but wears a skirt and seems to have breasts, which makes his (or her?) gender undefined.
Final Fantasy IX, 12+ Just one in the long-running series, this app is all about crafting, exploration, and combat. It also features Quina Quen, who is from a tribe of creatures called the Qu. Her/his pronoun depends on the language in which the game is played, and his/her appearance doesn’t indicate a gender.
The Sims 4, 12+ As in all the other Sims games, players get to choose almost every aspect of their characters and control their every move. Unlike previous releases, this installment lets users blend gender traits so characters are more fluid. For example, users can choose “female” as a gender and then use a “masculine” body type and select from a wide range of clothing options.
Kitty Powers’ Matchmaker, 13+ This game’s namesake, Kitty Powers, is a real-life British drag queen. Although unrelated to gender, Matchmaker is inclusive to all sexualities, includes some ambiguously gendered characters, and uses the pronoun “they” in some cases in place of “he” or “she.”
LongStory, 14+ This app was designed from the ground up with gender fluidity in mind. Both of its avatar options are somewhat androgynous, and players can choose a neutral pronoun. Without giving anything away, a key theme of the game is openness to all gender and sexual identities.
Street Fighter X Tekken, 14+ This game is all about fighting — including with an ambiguously gendered character named Poison. While Poison has female attributes, there are clues that suggest she may be transgender or transsexual, though the game leaves it for players to decide.
Tekken Tag Tournament 2, 14+ This fighting game features a gender-fluid character named Leo (whose birth name is Eleonor). While Tekken Tag Tournament 2 refers to Leo as a she, her unisex clothing and hair and use of “male” weapons adds to her mystique.
Dragon Age Inquisition, 18+ This game’s inclusion of a transgender character isn’t what makes it mature (that’s the graphic violence and sex). Born a girl, Krem now lives as a man, and his story emerges through dialogue with other characters. Dragon Age’s developers consulted experts on gender issues to create a positive, accurate representation.
Written by Christine Elgersma for Common Sense Media.

Practical Tips for Parents of Exceptional Readers

If your kid’s an advanced reader who’s reading way above grade level — finding appropriate books can be a real challenge.

Kids reading is something to celebrate. But if your kid’s an advanced reader — a preschooler who’s already reading, or an elementary or middle school kid who’s reading way above grade level — finding appropriate books can be a real challenge. Your kid may be able to read the words, but is she ready for the material? And what about keeping kids interested when they can blow through a stack of books in an afternoon?
Simply picking books targeted to older kids may not be the answer. Some of those books might be too complex for them or have mature content they might not be ready for. The key is finding a book — or series — that’s engaging, well-matched to your kid’s literacy skills, and on target with his emotional development.
Here are some practical suggestions to help you pick books to suit your super readers.
Feed their interests. The risk with precocious readers is that they’ll get bored. But if you tap into what they love, they’ll enjoy reading multiple books on that subject. If your child only wants to read books about dogs or chess or soccer this month, let her. If he’s suddenly fascinated by graphic novels, that’s great. Got a gamer who’s hooked on Minecraft? There’s lots of literature about it. Especially in elementary school, follow your kid’s lead. These are the years when a lifetime of loving books begins. Let your children truly read for pleasure.
Ask the experts. If you’re struggling to find books that fit both your kid’s maturity level and reading capacity, head for the library. Librarians are stars at matching books to kids. Their specialty is “If you liked this, you’ll probably like this.” They know the buzzy new releases as well as children’s classics and can recommend books for all ages and skill levels. Your kid’s teacher also usually knows which books your kid tends to pick up during free reading time. Get that intel, and you’re on your way. Independent bookstores with a substantial children’s section also can be a great resource. Booksellers, like librarians, know the titles strong readers gobble up.
Go series hunting. Engagement is key with precocious readers, and series are a great way to keep them interested and anticipating the next installment. If your kid is a particularly speedy reader, you can get all the books in a series so the next one is ready when he finishes the previous one. Not all book series are as high-quality as Harry Potter, but there are some good ones, and once your kid’s engrossed in a series, you’re golden for weeks — or months. Ask other parents which series or authors have clicked with their precocious readers, and share your finds with them.

Consider nonfiction. Strong readers enjoy digesting and retaining facts. History and biography are two options for keeping your kid engaged — and informed! For kids age 4 to 8, there are stellar picture-book bios and informational picture books for every interest: animals, sports, cars and trucks, planes and rockets, knights and castles — you name it.

Pick a genre. Fantasy books tend to be longer and have sophisticated vocabularies without getting into social and other issues that parents might not want younger children reading about. Or if a fantasy does veer into that territory, the concept’s often masked in metaphor. Science-fiction books have thought-provoking themes and explore mind-bending possibilities. Mysteries keep kids thinking, guessing, and problem solving.
Consider the classics. Your school may not be assigning them, but classic children’s books are beautifully written and have universal themes, memorable characters, and rich vocabularies — without the swearing and mature content sometimes found in contemporary middle grade and young adult fiction.

Make room for comics. “Illustrated” doesn’t mean “easy.” Graphic novels hold great appeal for all kinds of readers in all kinds of genres, including history, fantasy, and science fiction.

Nurture a nose for news. Steer your precocious reader to kid-friendly news sites such as Scholastic Kids Press Corps and magazines with kid appeal, such as National Geographic Kids, which has a companion website. Older tweens and teens can go straight to regular National Geographic magazine, newspapers, and news and sports websites.
Read aloud to them. Parents of small children do this routinely, but once kids start reading on their own, parents often stop reading to them. Reading more challenging books to kids gives you an idea of what they can handle in terms of content, structure, and vocabulary. Ask simple questions along the way — How do you like the story so far? Is it confusing? Is it too scary? — and answer any questions your reader might have.
For kids age 8 to 12, try:

Read along with them. Exposure to the wider, messier adult world is part of what comes with the ability to read more challenging books. For tweens and teens, having a parent, teacher, or mentor to discuss with helps. You might try reading some of the same young adult books your kids read or rereading controversial classics.

Don’t rush them. Just because they can read Shakespeare or Jane Austen at age 10 or 11 doesn’t mean they should. Some books are best appreciated by a more sophisticated reader. If kids are ahead of the curve, they’re already doing great, and they have a lifetime to read the Great Books.
Written by Regan McMahon for Common Sense Media.

How to Get Your Old iPhone Kid-Ready

Before you hand that old iPhone over to your kid (Woot, woot! UPGRADE!) get it set just right.

With the release of Apple’s new iPhone on the horizon, million of parents are faced with the dilemma of “What to I do with my old iPhone?”
While some will decide to sell them or trade them in, others will hand over their precious electronic companions to their children. But first, you need to get it ready.

The service question

The first thing you need to do is decide if you are going to keep the phone on network and have cell service on the phone.
Staying on network is necessary if you want to make calls. But this can be expensive, and your kids may not be ready for the responsibility of a cell phone contract and bill.
Off network, the iPhone can still run most apps, texting, email, FaceTime, watch movies, or listen to music with only a wifi connection, making it an ideal starter gadget for a child who isn’t quite ready for the responsibility of having a cell phone contract.
The best part is it’s free. There is no cost to sign up for free wifi at many business, schools, or homes. But if your kids are in an area with out free wifi, they will be unreachable. This includes many parks and restaurants where kids spend time.

Getting it ready

Despite whether you choose to keep your phone on cellular or go wifi only, you are going want to be sure to reset the phone. This will erase all your passwords, pictures, and apps. This would be a good time to update the phone as well if you are not running the most recent version of IOS.
After the phone reboots, you will have to go through the initial set up. Be sure to give the phone a password that you know, or even add your thumb print to the Touch ID. You don’t want to snoop on your kids, but make sure you have access to the phone.
Give your child their own Apple ID. You can still use the Family Sharing for things like apps and music, but you won’t have to share contact lists or bookmarks.

Family Sharing

Family Sharing is Apple’s way of not making every member of a household pay for everything. You can share your content (e.g. apps) and services (e.g. Apple Music) with up to six people in your household.
Since Family Sharing links accounts though your credit card, you control what your kids download. Whenever they want an app or a song, it will notify you and ask you to confirm that it’s okay for them to purchase.
Finally, if you have items in your house that are HomeKit enabled, this will allow your children or spouses to control them as well.


So far, I have been talking about everything the phone can do, but there may be a few things you don’t want your kids’ phones doing. Apple thought of that, too, which is why they added in Restrictions under the General menu in Settings.
Many of the stock apps you might not want your child to have access to can be disabled or retried here. This includes apps like Face time, the camera, Air Drop, and installing or deleting apps.
You can also set rating restrictions on content to be sure they don’t download anything inappropriate from iTunes. My girls are school age, so I went with PG.
The first thing I did with my kids’ phones was to turn off their ability to buy anything in an app. I have heard too many horror stories of kids spending thousands of dollars trying to win some free-to-play game. I didn’t even risk it and blocked their ability to buy anything.


The last thing you need to be sure to do before you set your kids free with an iPhone is enable a few safety features.
Find My Friends is my personal favorite. It gives me a good idea where my kids are and can even notify me when they leave one location for another.
You should also be sure to enable Find My Phone. If your child ever loses the phone, you will be able to track it, have it make a sound, or lock it making it almost worthless to the person who finds it.
After you complete the list above, it is now time for the fun part: putting your child’s favorite apps, movies, and music on the device. It will take a bit of time to download, but it will be worth it when you hand them their “new” iPhone and hopefully distract them long enough for you to be able to play with your new iPhone.

5 Questions Teachers Wish You Would Ask Them About Screen Time, Tech, and Internet Privacy

Teachers — who are on the front lines of the tech-infused school day — are experts at helping families manage this stuff so that kids can learn.

“No TV until your homework is finished” used to be the easiest way to separate school work from screen time. Today, with IMs, YouTube, texting, and social media, that boundary is super blurry. And because middle and high schoolers often have media and technology as part of their lessons and take-home assignments, it’s tough for parents to know where to draw the line. Fortunately, the folks whose job it is to prepare kids to take on the world (including the digital one) know all about managing screen time, multitasking, online privacy, and even using tech tools at home. And they know your tweens and teens pretty well, too. Teachers — who are on the front lines of the tech-infused school day — are experts at helping families manage this stuff so that kids can learn. Here are the questions teachers wish you’d ask about the issues that affect students the most.
How much non-school-related screen time should I allow on a school night?
Rather than allotting a certain amount, first list out everything your kid needs to do in a 24-hour period. Assign a time limit for each activity — for example, 30 minutes for chores, one hour for physical activity, 45 minutes for reading, 20 minutes for dinner, etc. Don’t forget to add 9 to 12 hours for sleep! In the remaining time, figure out how much can be used for screen-based entertainment. It will probably vary throughout the week. Try the American Academy of Pediatrics Family Media Plan to calculate a schedule that works for your family.
How can I curb my kid’s multitasking during homework?
In the classroom, teachers who use tech often have to personally monitor students to make sure they’re focusing on work, not fooling around on their devices. At home, it’s a good idea to reduce or eliminate multitasking because it really takes a toll on learning — and and drags out homework duties. Set up a homework zone in a common area where you can keep an eye on their activities. Make it device-free if possible — although sometimes kids legitimately need them for study apps or for checking assignments. Keep devices out of the bedroom, because texting and sleeping is about the worst multitasking kids can do. If they have to use devices and you can’t closely supervise, consider downloading a parental control app that limits access to entertainment during homework, such as unGlue. You can also enable Restrictions or Guided Access on iPhones or use Google’s Family Link on Android devices to help keep kids on task. But you’ll probably still need to spot check.
What do I need to know if my kid has to download an app or register for a site for homework?
Teachers who use technology or expect students to use it at home generally have a plan for keeping you in the loop. They should supply a list of the tools that kids will need access to at home and a process for notifying you if anything changes during the year. One of the most important issues with kids using technology at home is student privacy. Your kid’s school ideally vets third-party vendors to ensure that they’re not taking advantage of your kid’s information. If your kid has to register for anything, read the privacy policy on the company’s website and provide only the most basic information required.
What should I do if I find out about cyberbullying by kids in your class?
Teachers definitely want to know if there is cyberbullying happening. Ideally, kids are learning about digital citizenship either on its own or in the context of their instruction (for example, a team project using Google Docs that students have to collaborate on), so it should be something that is discussed and dealt with. Tell the teacher — or have your kid report it — so it can be worked out using the school community’s conflict resolution methods, just like any other problem affecting students. Teachers can keep an eye out for more of this behavior in school. They should also have clear systems in place to monitor and moderate any class activity online for inappropriate behavior or bullying.
How can I use technology at home to support in-class learning?
Nearly every app for kids in the app stores is labeled “educational,” but not all of them are really good for learning. If you’re looking for tech tools that you can use to support your kid’s in-class learning at home, think of three broad categories: instructional tools that teach academic subjects; creation tools that let kids express themselves; and communities that offer a supportive, collaborative sharing space. These can be apps, websites, games, design programs, and social worlds. Here are some to try:
Khan Academy
PBS Kids
Google Art Project
One Globe Kids Friends Around the World
Explain Everything Classic
Animoto Video Maker
LittleBigPlanet 2
Project Noah
Written by Caroline Knorr for Common Sense Media.